Dr. Marshack’s blog postings are short and timely. She shares tips that make your complex relationships work better. She also posts questions because she wants to hear from you and share ideas. Bringing people together to help each other is one of her missions.
Note: Some of the older blogs posts have been imported from a previous website and may have broken links. Try the “search” function in the sidebar to find linked pages that appear to be missing.
Do you have trouble letting go of regrets? Is it tough to forgive those who have wronged you? Is it particularly painful to forgive yourself? Regrets, grief and self-recrimination are steps along the way to serenity, or peace of mind. But how on earth do we get there?
Freedom of Choice
The antidote, in my mind is to embrace Freedom of Choice. One reason we have troubles is that we face choices daily. We can
turn that process over to others, or we can claim it for ourselves. What this means is that you take responsibility for your choices, good, bad, and neutral. You may not always have much of a choice, or you can’t always see “around the river bend,” and we are at the mercy of the choices of others — but when you take responsibility for the outcome of your choices, serenity lies ahead.
Children Seem So Free
Have you ever noticed how free young children seem to be? Or the family dog? It’s as if they have no awareness of the consequences of their actions. They are blissfully ignorant, so to speak. It may last a lifetime for the dog, but not for the child. Soon enough the child learns that their choices don’t always work out blissfully. Year after year they experience plenty of success, some losses, and mostly neutral outcomes. After a lifetime of these lessons, peace of mind may feel far away, as the child grows into an adult with regret, grief and self-recrimination.
Guilt is a Survival Skill
Believe it or not, regret, guilt and self-recrimination are built in survival skills for human beings. (Another survival skill is blame, but I’ll leave that for later). The simple reason that we engage in guilt is that it makes us re-think our actions and to look for a better solution — for next time. In other words, you feel more powerful when you believe you can fix the problem that caused the grief (or regret) in the first place.
The problem with this working theory is that you can’t fix everything. You can’t always go back in time. Sometimes you didn’t actually cause the problem anyway. It may have been just one of those things that surprised you when you least expected it. Or perhaps another person outwitted you.
Self-Recrimination is a Survival Skill Too
Blaming yourself for an unpleasant outcome is another way to keep yourself feeling in control. Self-Recrimination is hard to shake when you really did cause the problem, or at least contributed to it. It’s especially painful when you’ve lost a friend or loved one over your actions.
I think we hang onto self-recrimination much longer. It surpasses regrets and grief in how tough it is to shake. When you really made a huge mistake, that caused harm to yourself and/or others, and you are blamed by lots of people for the problem, and there’s really no way to fix it, or even prevent it since it is a once in a lifetime error — what do you do?
Self-Forgiveness Comes First, Not Last
It took me many years to understand that the key to happiness isn’t the right to have it (guaranteed by the US Constitution), or to solve every dilemma set in front of me, but that the key to releasing myself from regrets, grief and self-recrimination came from forgiving myself first (self compassion).
I realized that I was darned lucky to have engaged all of my life in making choices. I made them freely, whether I was ignorant or not of the outcome. And each time I succeeded or failed, I had the right to choose again. Sure some of my choices led me to a place where options were minimal, but that only meant I had to reboot; accept the losses and move to another path.
Haven’t you had this experience too? When you look back on your life, does it ever occur to you that if you hadn’t failed, or hadn’t lost a loved one, you wouldn’t have grown into the wonderful person you are today. In fact, these losses show us the way forward, if you accept that only you can make the choices in your life.
I explain this process of self-forgiveness and freedom to choose, more in my new book “WHEN EMPATHY FAILS: How to stop those hell-bent on destroying you.” Through many years of struggling to keep my head above water in a devastating situation, it finally occurred to me to let go of self-recrimination and seek answers outside of the problem, and outside of myself.
I call this freedom of choice, Radiant Empathy. Radiant Empathy is a kind of wisdom that comes from realizing that the freedom to keep choosing your life is far more important than tallying your mistakes. I’m still sad over many of my losses (particularly my children), but now I view my losses as battle scars. They are just proof that I threw my whole self into life. Freedom to choose — yes that’s the antidote to Regrets, Grief and Self-Recrimination.
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Only a few days ago, I decided that I wanted to dedicate my new websites to people I love and who have inspired my work. The obvious choices are (1) my parents for my life’s work, and (2) my daughters for introducing me to Autism Spectrum Disorder. While countless others helped along the way, sometimes with gentle prodding, soaring speeches, probing discourse, deft editing, and at times painfully searing criticism — it just makes sense to dedicate these two new websites to those I hold dearest in my heart. Love is like that isn’t? It’s a guiding light that shows us the way to our authentic expression of Self.
When I presented this idea to a few friends for feedback, I was never so surprised when a close friend said, “I wouldn’t do that. It’s too personal. You want to remain professional, don’t you?”
I was taken aback until I realized that he may not understand the “Life of the Personal.” I first learned about this important developmental stage, after the events of Sept. 11, 2001 awakened me to the fact that I needed to take my life more personally — and I haven’t looked back since.
Below is an edited excerpt from my book, WHEN EMPATHY FAILS: How to stop those hell-bent on destroying you, where I introduce you to my Empathy Dysfunction Scale (EmD Scale). The book and this blog post are personal and YES! I meant to write them this way. Please take your time to read and absorb all of this, because the bottom line is that if you want to take back your life, and to live it as fully as you can, then you have to take your life personally.
It’s about Waking Up.
“At first the awakening was just emotional, not personal. I knew that something wasn’t right in my world, but I didn’t fully understand what it was I needed to change.
“The catastrophe in New York frightened me and propelled me to take action, but it was action without a plan. Filing for divorce was my first action step. I finally had the courage to break out of a destructive marriage. But this still wasn’t personal; it was an action to move away from someone, a way of life that was not safe for me. There still was no proactive plan for my life.”
It’s about being Strong.
“I got an inkling of an idea about my life of the personal when I spent three days in the county jail, following my first false arrest. The obvious is that I recognized it was not going to be so easy to divorce a divorce attorney in a legal system where he held all of the cards. I needed to learn how to stand up for myself and quickly before I lost everything. Not so obvious was the lesson I learned from a tinypamphlet left in my jail cell by volunteers from Catholic Charities.
“Desperate for something to distract me from my plight (and my migraine headache) I read the story of the suffering of Mother Mary as she watched her son Jesus carry his cross to Calvary where he would be crucified. I literally wept with Mary as she described her feelings of anguish, fear and anger. . .but held strong her resolve that the son she bore would die for something far greater for all of us.
“What does Mary’s story have to do with the personal? At that first “visit’ to jail, I could definitely relate to a mother’s suffering, but it would only occur to me later how much a mother may be called upon to sacrifice. As the years rolled by and I was sued and stalked and defamed and arrested again. . . as first one daughter left me, then the second, I learned more about the life of the personal. It is actually a source of strength.”
It’s about Radiant Empathy.
“Taking one’s life personally means to realize how incredibly important you are. You were born to be You in every way possible. You are an amazing, one of a kind Soul and with every step you take you walk on hallowed ground. There is no way any of us can truly understand the enormity of God’s plan, but to know you are loved is enough. Mother Mary knew this, which is why she could be strong for her son and all of the rest of us who weep at her feet.
“In other words, the action plan for taking your life personally is to relax and know that you are an instrument of God’s love for you. Throughout this book you will see me ignore this knowledge, struggle to control the outcome. . . and fail repeatedly, even though I had this lesson early on in my fight against injustice.
“I am still learning to take my life personally, to enjoy the beauty of life and to count even adversity as a blessing. (After all, adversities drove me to write this book).
“Regardless of what I said on the radio following 9/11—and with Mother Mary’s help—I think I finally understand the lesson of living the life of the personal. Because only YOU can do it. Living personally is to do everything you can as the God creation that you are . . . and then do a lot more. That’s what I call Radiant Empathy (EmD-5).”
These realizations led me to discover the connection between Empathy and Empathy Dysfunction (EmD). The only way to appreciate this discovery is to take it personally. It is in the Life of the Personal, that we find the resilience to solve the problems we encounter with those having EmD. And it is through that resilience that we can achieve Radiant Empathy.
Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
Author: William Shakespeare
What’s In A Name?
“Asperger Syndrome,” Autism Spectrum Disorder, High Functioning Autism? I have been conflicted for a long time about what to name our group. Unlike Shakespeare, “Asperger Syndrome” is not a rose. Nor does it smell as sweet by any other name. Not only is the disorder complex, but the name itself is rife with controversy (political and clinical).
Eventually I settled on the name for my membership website, ASPERGER SYNDROME & RELATIONSHIPS: Life With an Adult on the Autism Spectrum, for reasons practical, professional and personal. The name matters because this website is a beacon to those who need the support. I wanted a name that could be easily recognized and that represents what our group stands for. To know that you are not alone, and that your voice matters—well, this is huge for the Neuro-Typicals (NTs) who seek us out, and join our community.
The Practical Reason? Hundreds of members have tracked down our group because they searched the Internet using the popular term “Asperger Syndrome.” Accessibility is vital to a group of NTs who feel lost and adrift. They may not know there is any other term for “Asperger’s.” They certainly don’t know the history of the term.
The Professional Reason? I have published three books using the term “Asperger Syndrome.” My work as an author and psychologist is associated with this term. Plus, many mental health professionals still use the term for similar reasons.
The Personal Reason? For over 25 years using the term “Asperger Syndrome” has helped many of us NTs be more supportive of our ASD oved ones, because we could see them differently than “garden variety” autism. The term helped distinguish those with High Functioning Autism as unique and capable in many ways. Even those on the Autism Spectrum embraced the difference and coined the term “Aspie” to set themselves apart.
The Lesson of the Self-Portrait—Relationships
While the term “Asperger Syndrome” is an important part of our membership name, so is the word Relationships.
Recently one of my NT readers asked if he could have a digital copy of a drawing I published in my book, “GOING OVER THE EDGE?” It is a drawing by my daughter Bianca when she was a young teenager; an assignment for school to draw her self-portrait. Bianca has “Asperger Syndrome.”
I remember watching that day as Bianca drew with a No. 2 pencil. She started at the far right top of the page, drawing the bird’s wing. Then she filled in the rest of the bird, and quickly the other details. I was amazed at her talent. But it was the stunning message behind her drawing that broke my heart.
“How do you like the bats flying out of my nose?” Bianca asked. It was only then that I recognized the disturbing message in her self-portrait. Not just a noisy creative brain, but a frightening cacophony of wild, angry, primitive animals. What I thought was a beautiful bird with outstretched wings was screeching in her ear. Snakes writhed around her mouth. Prehistoric raptors clashed. Wolves howled. There are some peaceful aspects to the drawing, such as an Orca breeching, a flower and a butterfly; apparently a little calm in the jungle of her mind.
The incredible depth of Bianca’s self-awareness is revealed in how she etched her hand. The fingers are intelligent animals (dolphin, horse, wolf, and hawk)—but her thumb is a woman, wearing a long cloak from head to toe. The opposable thumb distinguishes her as human, but her humanness is still shrouded.
As if my mother’s heart needed even more to ache over, I noticed a small figure of a girl, hidden among the wilderness of her mind/drawing. The girl looks frightened and alone, as she hugs her knees to her chest, and huddles beneath the tail of an iguanodon, with a ferocious plesiosaur swimming by. How did I not know that my beautiful child felt this alone and in danger?
Given the personal nature of Bianca’s drawing, I asked my NT reader why the picture was so important to him. He said he wanted to use it as a screensaver, as an ongoing reminder of what he and his “Aspie” wife live with every day. He said:
“. . . I’ve been struggling with finding and defending my self-worth and establishing a sense of value. Seeing the drawing opened up an epiphany in me: For all these years I’ve been providing that little girl curled up in a ball in the middle of all that screaming chaos with a normal fulfilling life that I don’t think many other people would have been able to do. That’s real value right there and an effort worth a life. I’m sure I’ll continue to struggle with needing recognition and appreciation, but at least I might now start to have and eventually internalize a context to appreciate myself.”
The lesson of Bianca’s self-portrait is that our group name has to include this important concept—Relationships. It is through the Complex Relationship between the NT and our “Asperger” loved ones, that we come to know ourselves at a deeper level. As my reader recognized, his efforts are of value. He does make a difference. With his request for a copy of Bianca’s drawing, he has started to take back his life from the chaos so that he can appreciate the radiant Soul within.
On April 19, 2018 the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/19/world/europe/hans-asperger-nazis.html) published findings showing that Dr. Hans Asperger was a Nazi sympathizer during WWII. As an Austrian pediatrician he made an important discovery in the field of autism, that there are children with high functioning autism. Later this diagnostic category was given his name, “Asperger Syndrome.” As important as this discovery was, Dr. Asperger also helped identify children that the Nazi’s deemed defective, referring these children to the Third Reich’s child-euthanasia program.
The term “Asperger Syndrome” has become widely accepted in common parlance, so it is not easy to replace. My books were written prior to this discovery about Dr. Asperger. For revised editions, my publisher AAPC (Autism, Asperger Publishing Company) has asked that I remove the term in my books where it is convenient to do so. In order to maintain continuity for readers, I continue to use the term, interspersed with ASD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and High Functioning Autism. Therefore, the terms “Asperger Syndrome,” “Asperger’s,” and “Aspie” remain on some pages, where to change them would cause too much confusion.
I hope you appreciate the sensitive nature of this discovery about Hans Asperger. As with my books, I made the tough choice on our website to keep using the term. However, I have made every effort to substitute other terms where they fit (i.e. ASD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, High Functioning Autism).
I hope you will also accept my humble attempt to resolve this inconvenient truth, at least on paper. I have chosen to distinguish between the man, Hans Asperger, and the diagnosis he discovered. I have italicized and put in quotes all references to “Asperger Syndrome,” and its variants.
I have often written of ASD/NT couples and families, that these are very challenging relationships. It appears that even in a name, the challenge persists. I hope that you find in our community a way to reconcile the painful inconsistency inherent in our name, but also the painful inconsistencies in your Life With an Adult on the Autism Spectrum.
For most people, love means loving or engaging in acts of love that are reciprocated. Because we have empathy, love becomes a dynamic process that deepens over time. The love relationship is more complex than most people realize. We receive little useful education about how to make love work or how to make love last, or just how to make love. Most of our learning comes from television and movies or pornography – sources that are two-dimensional at best. In time, we stop learning and settle into a routine of love, sex and intimacy that can grow dull and tedious, or stressful, or even non-existent.
Sex is not the most important part of a loving partnership. There are many other qualities that need to be developed and nurtured over time to make a relationship special and intimate. However, sex is a critical element. Healthy, loving sex makes special the relationship with your soul mate. Sexual intimacy makes this friendship different than any other. It’s a bond of love like no other.
To keep love alive in your relationship, ask yourself the following questions about your sexual connection with your partner…
Is there joy and excitement in your relationship?
Are you more in love today than when you first met?
Do you view sex as a time to bond and to learn more about your partner?
During intimate moments do you feel as though you are sharing your true inner self?
If you can’t answer yes to these questions, then it’s time to take action and restore your love life. I can help you make a successful plan of action. If you live near Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA please contact my Jantzen Beach office and schedule an appointment. I also offer online therapy if that works best for your busy schedule.
However, I must add a postscript for those of you who have a partner with Aspergers. What you know about love and what you expect from love will be severely challenged, because, for your Aspie, love is a noun, not a process. Love is a thing they keep hidden in their hearts, and you’re just supposed to know it. They have difficulty knowing how and when to express love.
However, we NTs sense that this type of love is a thing they feel, not a love they share. The reason this is important to us NTs, is that we sorely miss the loving process. We feel alone, disconnected and unloved, even when our Aspies do feel love inside, but don’t share it. If you’re a member of my Asperger Syndrome: Partners and Family of Adults with ASD Meetup, please sign up for the low-cost video conference, “When Love is a Noun.” We will be meeting at the following times for your convenience…
You’ve no doubt heard the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. From an early age, parents try to teach their children to be kind. As we grow into adulthood, we can either enhance this trait through practice, or we can lose it due to outside influences or our own selfish tendencies.Kindness and empathy usually go hand in hand, as they both help you to relate to others. Kindness can improve personal relationships and make you healthier. There are other benefits, as well…
Kindness releases feel-good brain chemicals. You feel better when you do something nice because it releases neurotransmitters such as serotonin and endorphins, plus the hormone oxytocin. All of these flood your nervous system with a sense of well-being and satisfaction.
Kindness eases anxiety and stress. Performing kind acts gets your mind off of yourself, as you focus on helping others. It also gives you something positive to do. The satisfaction from helping others bolsters your own sense of well-being.
Kindness improves health. Interestingly, a study of adults aged 57-85, “Productive activities—and frequent volunteering in particular—may protect individuals from inflammation that is associated with increased risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.”
Yet when we dig deeper into the motivation behind acts of kindness, we begin to see how acts of kindness can be performed without empathy. We’ve all read about those who contribute money, just for the notoriety; not because they care about the people that money will help.
For another example, those with Asperger Syndrome (high functioning Autism) need to be taught etiquette and rules, or what I call Rules of Engagement (ROE). (Find an example in this blog post.) Whereas, NTs develop a kind heart as a result of deeply caring for the feelings of others.
Looking at this another way, the Golden Rule is just a rule to our Aspies. It might be a rule they believe in – and will hold us to that rule for their benefit. However, to NTs the Golden Rule is a necessary part of any relationship, because it moves the relationship forward.
Further the Golden Rule is flexible, isn’t? We don’t always treat others as we wish they would treat us. Rather we, NTs, make discriminations about what we might say or do, based on whether it’s true, necessary, and kind. These decisions require the use of enhanced empathy, to read the subtle cues that occur at the moment of interaction. It’s not always kind to just blurt things out, is it? Even if you mean well, some comments are better left unsaid. For Aspies this axiom is a mystery.
I think empathy is one of the main reasons we run into snags with our Aspies. That’s why my free January Teleconference is called: Can Aspies Be Kind Without Empathy? It will be held on Thursday, January 24th at 2:30 PM PT. Once you get it that they can be kind, given the right Rules of Engagement, then it’s much easier to navigate your relationship. It’s important to understand that you can have empathy, or you can be kind, but empathic kindness…well, that’s part of Radiant Empathy.